Drawings show gleaming courthouse tower in downtown Sacramento. Will it be built?

A conceptual drawing for the new Sacramento courthouse on the edge of the railyard infill development. The $490 million project is not funded.
A conceptual drawing for the new Sacramento courthouse on the edge of the railyard infill development. The $490 million project is not funded. NBBJ/Motiv

New drawings show a 17-story, glass-walled Sacramento courthouse standing beside its federal counterpart at the edge of the city’s downtown railyard site.

Whether it will ever be built remains to be seen.

Sacramento leaders have high hopes for a gleaming new courthouse that can help shape the city’s evolving skyline, bridging the divide between downtown’s bureaucratic office towers and its future retail, entertainment and housing district in the railyard.

City and court leaders also have practical motivations, namely a way to replace the Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse, which they say is outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the courthouse is not a “wouldn’t it be nice” kind of project.

“There are significant safety issues now,” he said. “It’s not a luxury.”

The proposed 538,000-square-foot building with 53 courtrooms has an estimated price tag of $490 million – and no identifiable funding source. It would move Sacramento Superior Court operations three blocks west of the current courthouse, built in 1965 at 720 Ninth St.

The state’s Judicial Council has money for renderings, but not much more. The release of new drawings this week gave a glimmer of hope to Sacramento leaders who see the courthouse as another transformational building in the downtown area.

Councilman Steve Hansen shared the conceptual drawings on social media and said he hopes a good vetting process will make the design even better. The project is being designed by the architectural firm NBBJ with the rendering by Motiv.

“We’ll want a lot of public engagement and feedback to get a great building,” he said.

He said it’s important that the building connect to the existing city to the south and the new railyard development to the north.

“It is the face of our government for anyone in the judicial system,” Hansen said. “It needs to carry that pride in the judicial system.”

The conceptual drawings of the new courthouse on H Street between Fifth and Sixth streets show a building that in many ways resembles the nearby Robert T. Matsui Federal Courthouse. The drawing shows a tower to the south side of the property and a one- or two-story entryway toward the yet-to-be-developed railyard properties to the north.

While the land was purchased in the 2014-15 state budget, the Judicial Council of California last year said it had no more money for court construction around the state. State judicial leaders blame the Legislature and governor, who diverted about $1.4 billion in construction funds to run the court system during the recessionary budget crisis. They also say the state is experiencing a decline in court revenues from fines and fees.

“We have money identified to complete the design phase,” said Blaine Corren, a spokesman for the state Judicial Council. “We don’t have funding for construction.”

There are 17 courthouse projects stalled due to funding, Corren said.

A working Sacramento timeline has construction beginning in 2019 with the building opening in 2022, though that appears optimistic.

Steinberg said he’s looking for a public-private partnership that would help the city make a significant local contribution toward the building’s construction. That could involve selling public land elsewhere to jump start development and push the courthouse along.

As for the new design, residents have offered mixed views. Sacramento resident Brian Crall called it a “huge upgrade.” But Sacramento creative director Phil Tretheway was less impressed.

“A missed opportunity to be more interesting,” Tretheway said. “We can be more creative than this.”

Plans for the new courthouse will be presented to the subcommittee of the Judicial Council tasked with reducing courthouse construction costs on Dec. 7.

Corren said the Judicial Council doesn’t prioritize architectural grandeur.

The focus is on “making safe, secure, efficient working courthouses,” Corren said.

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch